In their determination to see Brussels and Bruges, many travelers to Belgium pass by delightful Ghent. My European trips have been increasingly focused on these quieter places, which haven’t been disrupted or overwhelmed by tourism.
From 1000 to around 1550, Ghent was one of the largest cities in Europe — with a population of 60,000, it was bigger than London or Paris. It was also one of the richest, with wealth derived from the wool trade. Even today, the heart of this thriving and youthful university town is still spectacularly medieval. The city cherishes its history and the buildings that date to its Golden Age, including a castle surrounded by a moat, a majestic cathedral and three beguinages (residences for religious women who lived in the community without taking vows or retiring from the world).
Ghent is now one of the foremost gastronomic destinations in northern Europe, thanks to the talented young chefs who have been drawn to this wealthy, food-loving city. On our recent trip we made several discoveries: At Chambre Séparée (Keizer Karelstraat 1), chef Kobe Desramaults, the wild man of Ghent gastronomy, has upended all the French conventions that once defined serious eating in the city; Oak (Hoogstraat 167/001) displays the talents of Italo-Brazilian chef Marcelo Ballardin, and many locals consider this stylish contemporary table to be the best address in Ghent right now; Pakhuis (Schuurkenstraat 4), one of the city’s most popular restaurants, serves the kinds of comfort food that Belgians crave; Restaurant Vrijmoed (Vlaanderenstraat 22) features the fine contemporary Belgian cooking of young chef Michaël Vrijmoed; and De Superette (Guldenspoorstraat 29), Desramaults’ bakery-cum-restaurant, is the hippest place in Ghent for a casual meal.